Ernst Haeckel

Kunstformen der Nature (Art Forms of Nature)

Ernst Haeckel, scientist, philosopher and artist, made a significant contribution to early evolutionary theory, and was profoundly influential on the Fine and Decorative Arts of his time. Initially Haeckel trained as a physician, and then studied comparative anatomy with an emphasis on sea organisms and embryology. After completing his studies in 1859 he was invited to survey the sea life around Messina, which resulted in his 1862 monograph Die Radiolarien of the little known protozoa encased in silica skeletons. It was received with great acclaim, particularly by Charles Darwin, and he was subsequently offered a professorship in zoology which also allowed him to marry his childhood sweetheart Anna Seth. Two years later his happiness was cut tragically short by his wife’s death, and his direction in science and belief in God forever altered.

Already a follower of Charles Darwin, in 1868 Haeckel published Natürliche Schopfungsgeschichte (The Natural History of Creation) asserting the central thesis of Darwin’s Origin of Species but in language more accessible to a wider audience, and arguably more influential then Darwin’s rather technical Origin. Although he would become one of the greatest disseminators of Darwinism, he conversely argued evolution was progressive, asserted a Biogenetic Law (developmental stages of an embryo are a replay of that species evolution), and incorporated the recapitulation theory of Jean-Babtiste Lamarck (traits acquired in a lifetime could be biologically inherited). He further argued that the origin of humans lay in Asia from the mythical lost continent of Lemuria, which continued as a legitimate argument to Darwin’s Africa theory until the 1990’s, and speculated that ‘missing links’  would be found to connect apes with humans decades before Eugene Dubois’s Java man was found.

Haeckel published further monographs, and in 1876 was commissioned to undertake the identification and illustration of the HMS Challenger expedition, which travelled more than 65,000 nautical miles, and was the first such scientific survey of the oceans, cataloguing over 4000 unknown species and ultimately establishing oceanography as a science. Haeckel published his Challenger reports over the subsequent decade, and became an inexhaustible, controversial lecturer and author of science, philosophy and travel. He would name thousands of new species, established terms such as stem cell, ecology (oecologia) and phylum. However it is through Kunstformen der Nature (Art Forms of Nature), published in sets of ten between 1899 and 1904, and as a complete volume in 1904, that he is best known.

Haeckel’s expertly drafted sketches of meticulously organised, stylized sea life, translated into lithographs by Adolf Gilitsch, would be reinterpreted by all areas of the fine and decorative arts to inform the style of the Art Noveau, and inspire some of the great artists, designers and decorators of the Belle Epoque such as Rene Binet, Antoni Gaudi, Gustav Klimt, Louis Tiffany and Charles Worth. Kunstformen gave insight into a world largely unknown, emphasising its symmetries and patterns to express the science in art, the art in science, and the connectivity of all living things. Ultimately our modern view of life has its foundations in Haeckel’s understanding of the natural world, and his holistic approach continues to be the framework adopted by emerging scientific fields whilst his extraordinary illustrations have never ceased to enliven all areas of the arts.